Monday, March 9, 2009

Can Nancy Pelosi's husband and Versus lift the UFL?

Evan WeinerBusiness of Sports Examiner

Can Nancy Pelosi's husband and Versus lift the UFL?

March 9, 4:43 PM ·

In this economic downturn, the last thing you except is that investors would sink money into a new football league. But the United Football League (UFL) has attracted attention from a heavy hitter, San Francisco businessman Paul Pelosi, who happens to be the husband of United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Comcast, the county's largest multiple systems cable TV operator. Pelosi and his group are putting up $30 million to get the enterprise off the ground while Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts will give the league exposure on the cable giant’s Versus sports network. Versus is available according to UFL officials to 75 million cable TV subscribers. Roberts is one of the most important people in the sports industry as Versus and some of Comcast's regional sports cable TV networks pour hundreds of millions of dollars in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Roberts' company also owes the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just what is the UFL and why is there a UFL? The simple answer comes from the league's mission statement.

"The UFL was developed to fulfill the unmet needs of football fans in major markets currently underserved by professional football by providing a high quality traditional football league comprised of world class professional football players. The UFL will serve the communities with pride, dedication and passion, and uphold a leadership role in the development of football worldwide. The UFL will provide every fan with an affordable, accessible, exciting and entertaining game experience.

"In these economic times, people have become more discriminating with their leisure dollars. It is unfortunate that it has become cost-prohibitive to take a family of four to a sporting event; we want to enhance the way sports is perceived and provide more value for less dollars. Our goal is to make a fan-friendly environment for all ages as we understand that this is the only way to develop the next generation of fans"

The league has not announced ticket prices yet. The UFL will name head coaches for the four teams on Wednesday and the league claims "Our coaches’ salaries will be competitive with those of most NFL coaches’ salaries. Our player salaries are on a per game basis and will be typically higher than the NFL’s minimum salaries and practice squad salaries."

There will be no big name players in the UFL meaning that league officials are borrowing a page from Vince McMahon's XFL, an entity that folded shortly after the final game of the 2001 season, the only season of XFL play. McMahon had no big name players either and was probably the most well known person in the XFL. McMahon's league went out of business because his business partner, General Electric's NBC TV division decided that the XFL had lost too much money.

The launch of the UFL may be more in line with the Spring Football League which featured teams in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and San Antonio. The SFL planned to test out its product with a four game season between late April and late May but lasted just two weeks. The SFL ownership wanted to return in 2001 but never followed through.

There are three people who are the driving force behind the UFL. UFL Founder Bill Hambrecht, who was a minority investor in the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League which lasted between 1983 and 1985 and was ultimately driven into the ground by Donald Trump and his wanderlust to compete against the National Football League in the fall and ultimately force the NFL to accept him and his New Jersey Generals into their league. Hambrecht's partner is Google executive Tim Armstrong. Paul Pelosi just came aboard recently.

The league hired Michael Huyghue as Commissioner. During his NFL tenure, Huyghue served on several of the NFL's committees, including NFL Management Council, the Executive Working Group Committee, the NFL College Advisory Committee, the NFL Europe League and as a Trustee of the NFL Players Insurance Trust. Huyghue was also the Jacksonville Jaguars Senior Vice President of Football Operations and a players agents. The UFL also has hired a number of former senior NFL executives to oversee team and league operations.

The UFL was supposed to get off the ground in 2008, the second of two proposed leagues that were scheduled to launch. The All-American Football League suspended operations before a planned spring 2008 kickoff because of a softening economy and the lack of a major TV contract. The UFL has been scaled down to four teams playing in seven cities. New York-Hartford will split home games in those cities, San Francisco will have two home games, Orlando will play two games at the Citrus Bowl and Los Angeles-Las Vegas will share a team. The UFL's first game will be on October 8 and the championship game will take place on Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas.

UFL investors plan to own a training facility in Casa Grande, Arizona which means that this is more than just a football venture. According to another news release, "(the UFL) will train and house its players in Casa Grande where a $20 million training complex is being constructed for the city and league use. On the adjacent property of the current Francisco Grande Hotel & Golf Resort, a state-of-the-art athletic facility is being built that will encompass eight playing fields, four field houses, sports training and rehabilitation center, locker rooms, office space and other amenities for UFL year-long use. Beginning September 1st, the UFL will train its players in Casa Grande and use its facilities throughout the six-week season."

There is no word on what the investors plan to do with the facility after training camp is done, but it is a good bet that the facility will not be dormant 46 weeks a year. The UFL investors can make some money from that facility away from football.

There is a long way to go before October though. The Versus deal has been set but the league needs a broadband agreement and a radio deal along with marketing partners and getting associates in this economy is getting more and more difficult. For years, automobiles and beer have been the staples of sports advertising. The UFL will probably be able to get a beer partner but getting a car maker may not be easy. One of the reasons that the American Football League was able to succeed was the marriage of NBC, Chrysler and the AFL back in the mid-1960s and a true lack of pro football franchises as there were just 12 NFL teams in 11 cities when Lamar Hunt announced the formation of the AFL in August 1959.

The only major American city underserved by the National Football league is Los Angeles.

Filling up rosters should be no problem. There are always players looking to play, particularly those who were in the Arena Football League who are looking for jobs because Arena League owners shut it down for a year as they reorganize and hope that the economy will pick up in 2010 when they plan to put a product out again.

Is there a need for a new professional football league? On the surface, the answer is no, there are 32 NFL teams and big time college football. Perhaps the UFL will find a niche in a very crowded industry in a weak economy and will be able to launch a full season in 2010.

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